The Parson Red Heads Leave L.A., Find Mojo

The Parson Red Heads
The Parson Red Heads
Photo courtesy of The Parson Red Heads

[Editor's note: Weekly scribe Jeff Weiss's column, "Bizarre Ride," appears on West Coast Sound every Wednesday. His archives are available here.]

See also: Where Are the Locally Grown Rappers?

During the tail end of the last decade, The Parson Red Heads were my favorite local band. They weren't the most technically virtuosic or the most sonically progressive, but every time I saw them I remembered why I love music.

Maybe that sounds trite. But once you start writing about music for money, it's easy to forget why you first fell for it in the first place. You begin to listen with your intellect instead of your ears, and often prize innovation and an imagined idea of the avant-garde over what actually sounds good.

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For someone inclined toward musical snobbery, The Parson Red Heads eroded my inherent cynicism.

Back when Edward Sharpe was the faux-hawked lead singer of an electro-rock band, The Parson Red Heads had the Eastside monopoly on communal, cathartic sing-alongs. Each performance didn't just feel like a family reunion, it actually was. The lead singer (Evan Way) was married to the drummer (Brette Marie Way). His sister was the keyboardist. The band's other principals all attended college in Eugene, Ore., and simultaneously moved down with the Ways.

"It was the classic story of a young band moving to L.A.," Evan Way says. "We packed up and moved with too little money. At one point, five band members and two of our friends lived in a one-bedroom apartment underneath the intersection of the 405 and 10 freeways."

Between 2006 and 2010, The Parsons were ubiquitous. They played packed residences at the Echo and Spaceland -- ebullient and clad in white, swelling up to a 15-person party onstage, wielding tambourines, electric guitars, steel pedals and enough good vibrations to induce acid flashbacks in Brian Wilson.

They released a well-received full-length and several EPs, with effervescent songs that absorbed folk-rock lessons from Love, Buffalo Springfield and The Beatles. They acquired a devout local following, then an indie deal, and made two national tours. Then three years ago, they decamped to Portland, Ore., where the '90s flame burns eternal in the form of affordable rent.

"You try to make it to the next level, but once you get there, you realize that it requires even more of your time to keep improving. But you're still not making nearly enough money to live," Way says.

He's speaking from his two-bedroom townhouse in Portland. The digs are significantly cheaper and more comfortable than the $1,000-a-month, 400-square-foot studio apartment that he and his wife shared before moving. They've since welcomed a son: George Harrison Way.

 

The move underlies a tangible but often under-stated fact of life for most contemporary indie rock bands (and almost everyone else under 40): It's almost impossible to earn enough to live comfortably in L.A. or New York, let alone reproduce.

For most bands, a geographical switch means the start of the end. But all four of The Parsons' original members returned to Oregon, where they cultivated a similarly dedicated cult. The release party for this month's Orb Weaver finds them taking over Portland's 620-capacity Aladdin Theater, their largest headlining gig to date -- and they play Silver Lake's Satellite on Nov. 6.

Way's sentiment about improvement has proven sincere. Orb Weaver is the group's best recording yet -- the first to fully capture the electricity of their stage show. With less pressure to stay afloat amidst the exorbitant cost of living, the band has succeeded in leveling up.

"Our expectations have changed. Everyone moves to L.A. and hopes to make music for a living and tour all over the world, but we've realized that that doesn't need to be our end goal," Way says. "We do it because we love making music and playing before people, and because we feel like we still have something to offer."

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